Interviewee: Sonya Clark, Artist and Distinguished Research Fellow in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2018-09-12
Interview Summary: Clark discusses her piece “Edifice and Mortar” in the Institute for Contemporary Art’s inaugural exhibition “Declaration.” Clark meditates on the paradoxes in the Declaration of Independence as well as the possibility of using founding ideals to hold the nation accountable to equality.
Keywords: Declaration, art, citizenship, equality
Transcription: Zhaire Roberson
Sonya Clark: You know, and I have no idea what you’re going to ask me about. I hope you’re not going to turn, you know, turn me into historian because I’m not a historian.
JP: No, no, no, we, yeah, really just want you to sort of talk about your piece and Inspirations for it and really just meditate on some of the themes that you brought out. So, it’s not nothing super gotcha journalism or anything too investigative. It’s really just an open and free-flowing conversation.
SC: Yeah, let’s see, let’s see. For some reason the thing I am trying to pull up is not opening. I am trying to pull up this PowerPoint. Ah ha because I have notes on my PowerPoint.
JP: Oh wonderful.
SC: That will keep me on track for what the last time I talked about this piece.
JP: Sure. Sure.
SC: I was thoughtful and articulate and we’ll see if I can attempt to do that again.
JP: Yeah, I know, I understand.
SC: They’re… And none of the images just came up. Hmm interesting. Interesting. Okay. [1:00] Well, why don’t we go ahead and get started and I’ll just… I’ll just keep clicking around.
JP: Sure. Yeah, we keep just… Yeah, so I guess now it’s a good time to introduce you to my colleague here, Deborah McDowell and we actually had the great good fortune of going down to see your piece at The Institute for Contemporary Art a few weeks ago in Richmond. And so, Deborah McDowell is the director of the Woodson Institute here at UVA. And yeah, we’re just so glad that you could make the time to speak with us.
SC: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Hi Deborah.
Deborah McDowell: Hello. I hope your weathering this rain, this dampness.
SC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely, it’s definitely odd weather. Yeah, you know, normally this time… I’m in DC and normally this time of year, it’s still hotter than hell but I’ve actually had to put a sweater on and it’s been very different.
DMcD: I know [2:00], I know and it’s the kind of weather when I most want to sleep.
SC: Yeah, it feels like four o’clock all day.
the bricks of empire
DMcD: Yes, indeed, indeed. Well, we thank you for making the time for us and as James said this isn’t about any gotcha journalism, but we were quite intrigued by your piece in the exhibition. In fact, it and the grouping of the lynching costumes provoked the most discussion. We were there with a colleague and we just continued to think about and meditate on your piece and especially the bricks. The… So, you made each brick by hand?
SC: So, yes, so the piece was fabricated. So, the bricks were wet bricks that [3:00] were then hand-molded so that they could be stamped with the Declaration of Independence as you saw and also on the verso. So, on the back of each stamp and on the back of each brick, stamped with a kind of maker’s mark drawing from the kinds of maker’s marks that were used in the Roman Empire.
DMcD: Why that connection?
SC: Oh, so that connection is a kind of straightforward one. I spent a lot of time going back and forth in the past twelve years to Italy and I’ve realized that there is a way in which people hold up the Roman Empire as being this great empire and that empire, and I would also say, America’s empire, were built on the back [4:00] of slavery.
SC: And so, while we hold up this empire as pinnacles of culture, to realize that paradoxically while these are… These are systems that were holding up… What they were built on was the taking advantage of others, treating other human beings as less than human and America swallowed that same legacy whole. So, the parallel is there this idea of nation building, empire building, as America was looking to who it wanted to model itself after. It… one of the one of the places that it looked to was ancient Rome and here we are still with the legacy and the continuation of that legacy of a nation that lives in this paradox between liberty and enslavement [5:00].
JP: And the piece also riffs on that sort of SPQR. I mean the stamp itself has that, you know, at what word is etched into? I wonder if you can even just maybe describe the piece perhaps for someone who might not have seen it before.
Edifice and mortar as an exploration of language
SC: Oh, certainly. Right. We’re on radio. So, so, the piece is imagine a little brick wall. Everybody has a sense about about how big a brick is so that’s easy to imagine. This brick wall is thirteen rows of bricks high and instead of mortar, what is in between each of the bricks is African-American hair that has been gathered from Richmond salons, African-American salons in Richmond. On the front of each brick there is… On each brick is a word from [6:00] the Declaration of Independence stamped in and stamped in a kind of script that is to be reminiscent of the handwritten version of The Declaration of Independence. On the back of each brick is something that looks like a crescent with a word that might not be familiar to people also stamped within that crescent. So, it’s a little complicated for me to describe why I picked this maker’s mark crescent and if people are not familiar with them, ancient Roman bricks often would have these crescent marks on them stamped on the back and on it. On one part of the crescent, would have the name of the person who owned the land where the clay was being gathered and then there would be [7:00] a sort of an internal ring and it would have the name of the slave owner and sometimes on the third, innermost ring of this crescent, you might have the name of the enslaved person. So, riffing off of that. So, we’ve learned a lot about ancient Rome and ancient Rome and the the institution of slavery through these crescent stamps. It’s one of the few places where you actually see the hand and the name sometimes of the enslaved person. One of the connections between, a much more straightforward connection between the idea of slavery in Italy and ancient Rome and the Americas and the United States of America and the Caribbean is that slavery can persist even in our language. [8:00] So, the stamp that I put on the back of each of these bricks is a crescent shape, but that crescent gets sort of reconfigured into an afro. So, it looks like a stylized afro like, you know, Angela Davis afro. And within the hair portion of that, afro, within the afro itself, is the Italian word, schiavo. Now, I’m going to spell that word for your listeners. It’s schiavo. Now, in Italian that’s pronounced schiavo. So, the “ch” makes it sort of “k” sound, right? But if we were in… Let’s say we were in Venice. So, Northern Italy, the Venetian accent softens it. So, it’s shiavo, right? Instead of schiavo. [9:00] Shiavo, right? And shiavo turns into the word, ciao. The greeting, hello, goodbye, ciao. Everybody knows what ciao means, you know, ciao. Well, the word schiavo means slave. So, when we are greeting each other by saying hello and goodbye, Ciao, ciao, we’re actually saying I’m in your service. I’m your slave. And that is one of those places where we see the slippage between the legacy of slavery on our very tongues. As well as embedded in the edifice and the mortar, which is the name of the piece of the foundations of this nation.
the notion and paradox of an edifice
DMcD: So, why Edifice and Mortar? Why not the more customary brick and mortar? And I should interrupt and say that there will be moments in our conversation when [10:00] I will ask seemingly obvious questions to you such as why the Roman connection but this is mainly for the purposes of viewers who may not be as steeped in this history as you are.
SC: Oh, yeah. No worries. No worries, of course, of course. So, brick and mortar, while the pieces are obviously made out of bricks… So, to say brick and mortar would be a little bit on the nose for me. But edifice refers to something that might be made out of bricks, but the word edifice not only refers to a building, specifically a really large scale building, but also the notion of a complex system of beliefs. And so, you know, I was actually going to the dictionary definition. Though, because edifice means both a complex system of beliefs and a large and imposing building, like how did we [11:00] build the structure? How did we build the edifice of the United, what has come to be the United States of America? And how the Declaration of Independence was part of building that system of beliefs. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” So, therein lies the paradox that all men are created equal. Well, not all men. Even when that was written. You know? And the paradox is right there. So, that edifice, that structure was already built on a faulty notion. So, that’s why the word edifice and then of course the mortar points the viewer to well, what is the mortar? What is holding these bricks together? And then they come to see that it’s made out of hair like the hair that I grow. African American hair, hair of… Clearly from someone from the African continent or who has relatives and legacy [12:00] from the African continent. And in fact it is in a great part the enslaved… enslaved people of African descent that built this nation, built many of the buildings that we all hold dear and true. You know, I think about Thomas Jefferson and when people go to Monticello, before it sort of is reconfigured itself, there was this notion of here was this great man in our history and he lived in this great, beautiful land all by himself as if that land wasn’t being worked by all these enslaved Africans and most likely African Americans. So, it’s to point to the mortar. What’s holding this edifice a system of beliefs, the structure together?
america in abstraction
JP: Yeah, and part of that is are also the words, right? And so, thinking of Jefferson as someone whose words are very much, kind [13:00] of, etched into our national psyche as well. I wonder if you could maybe speak about that a bit and maybe even what was the process I guess of, you know, I’m picturing and this might not be fair but picturing, you know, making these bricks, you know, by hand where it’s sort of like you’re almost rebuilding word-by-word the words of that document if that makes sense. And I don’t know if thinking about Jefferson sort of in that more granular way step-by-step versus the kind of composite edifice that we have right now. I wonder if you could maybe talk a little bit about that.
SC: I have to say, you know, if I’m honest I wasn’t specifically thinking about Jefferson but the Founding Fathers as a whole, you know, and, you know, that notion of how they’re held in high esteem, but always in this complexity of knowing that the wealth of this nation was built on enslavement of other people, chattel slavery. And [14:00] knowing that Richmond, Virginia was one of those major slave ports. It was one of Richmond, Virginia’s major industries. So, to just sort of point to all of those things. You know, I’ve realized that one of the things that I neglected to share with your viewers, as I was, I mean, one of the things that I neglected to share with your listeners was that the piece is thirteen bricks high because it refers to the thirteen stripes of the flag and against that brick wall, low brick wall is a blue piece of glass at an angle that sits on the bottom left. So, the whole piece from the front looks like a kind of upside down American flag in abstraction. And that blue angled mirror reflects the viewer back at themselves. So, when you’re thinking, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” who is [15:00] we? That all men are created equal, who was all men? Who was all? So, to invite people into the piece by seeing themselves reflected in the work. And I say that because at some point when I first conceived the work, I thought that I might bring people together to help me hand stamp all of the bricks but none of that is what it ended up being. That’s not how the piece got made. You know, it’s… But it was in part thinking about what it would mean for the audience themselves to be part of the process of building this edifice.
DMcD: And yet…
SC: I’m not sure if I answered your question, but…
DMcD: Yes, I’m thinking too about edifice, an edifice as a structure and what that… What that all suggests generally [16:00] speaking but then I’m reimagining the position of your piece there in the museum space. So, it is a portion of a wall. I mean, there is something about the piece that is necessarily an unfinished edifice. We… There are no structures supporting it, no adjoining walls, no adjoining brick walls. Then thinking about the fact that the wall there is has been constructed brick by brick, single entity by single entity. And so, at the same time that there is a suggestion of sturdiness and foundationalism. There is simultaneously a suggestion of fragility. Would that be fair to say? At least as the piece, as your piece suggests itself to [17:00] mean? And I find that very intriguing because as much as we know this country stands on this particular ideological foundation, it stands on the backs and bodies of particular people. There is something about the piece itself that is edifice and mortar that suggests something more fragile.
SC: Right. So, the… fragile is… I appreciate this reading, you know, again, there is something sort of diminutive about the piece. You know, because 13 thirteen high is not very high. Again, making reference to the flag. That’s why it’s the scale and size that it is. It’s based on the size of a brick. Iknew that I wanted it [18:00] to be thirteen bricks high to refer to the thirteen stripes of the American flag, of the United States of America’s flag. And it’s, you know, proportionally the size of a flag that, you know, so all of that is set. It is diminutive in this way that even as the founding fathers were writing these words, on composing these words, there is something inherently and its own undoing and here we are in 2018 still… still dealing with the legacy of the injustice that this nation was built on. Here we are. So many years later still dealing with that legacy. So, if that’s fragility then I would claim, yes, that there is something something in the building that was awry. And you might use the word fragility for that. But certainly [19:00] there’s something again about this paradox of injustice that I hope to imply in the piece.
DMcD: Sure. In fact, I might be inclined to take back the term fragility, it came first to mind, but substitute for it instability.
SC: Oh, yes. Yes. I like that reading even better. I like that word even more.
DMcD: Yes, instability. That’s what I was trying to grasp for and fragility came out but it’s more instability and the ways in which the sturdiness with which or the associations of sturdiness that attach to bricks and brick-making after we saw your piece, for example, to interject, we were having a discussion over dinner about my formative years in the segregated South and what it meant to, in terms of one’s own [20:00] class mobility, to graduate from living in a wooden house to living in a brick house. And a brick house suggested upward mobility, it suggested something more sturdy and yet the very first brick subdivision, the subdivision consisting of brick houses, was built on a floodplain and so it’s this continual interplay between things suggesting stability, formidability, and instability, all at once.
SC: Right and, you know, of course when I, when I was thinking about this piece when I was first asked to be included in the Declaration show by Stephanie Smith and the team at The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, I… The current president was talking about building [21:00] a wall. And now there’s so many other things that are being talked about under this administration, but building a wall to keep others out which, you know, this is a nation of others. Well, I can claim no First Nations or Native American blood, at least that I’m aware of, but we’re a nation of outsiders and even that kind of imperialism that formed this nation is, you know, curious in this context of building a wall to keep others out or even maybe get those of us who are perceived of as being others that they sort of white supremacist notions to, you know, we’re no longer useful. No longer useful, you know, when we were chattel slaves we were useful. And when there was land that could be taken from Native Americans that’s, you know, a kind of use. All of these kinds of histories, when we look them squarely in the [22:00] eye are… They’re painful legacies of the United States of America that we continue to not look at squarely and continue to plague us. Histories of injustice and histories of inequity. But again, those are the histories that the nation is built on. So, when I’m thinking about this idea of stability and instability, someone asked me at the exhibition about that blue glass that leans against the wall… Against this low wall and they weren’t quite understanding the reading as an abstracted U.S. flag. And what they said was, their reading of it was it looks like you’ve got this very this piece of glass like this fragile, to use your word, Deborah, this fragile piece of glass that that’s what’s holding up the wall, but glass can’t hold it brick, you know. And yet [23:00] it’s the glass that reflects the people back in the work and it is true that we are the ones who are here to challenge those words. To uphold them. The parts that should be upheld and the parts that need to be challenged. It’s our responsibility. In fact, that’s the way that this nation was built is that the people are to push back at the government when the government gets off-kilter.
JP: This conversation is reminding me, a few months ago, we hosted a symposium in honor of Tera Hunter, the historian… Princeton historian, if I’m not mistaken, her work. It was an anniversary of sorts of To Joy My Freedom, which is a book about African-American domestic workers in Atlanta. And during that symposium, there was a comment that came out that was talking [24:00] about both the tenuousness of white supremacy, but also the tenuousness of joy and that in some ways joy and the desire to have joy and to live and to have that kind of convivial space of support and resistance, that that actually exposes the fact that these structures of white supremacy, while important to focus on, are ultimately tenuous and fragile and at risk if that kind of makes sense. And so, that just is reminding me, I mean, this conversation is reminding me of that moment during the symposium and so, I wonder if maybe you could speak briefly about joy or, you know, in some ways this space that it’s, you know, you’re collecting hair you say from places around Richmond, barber shops and other salons as you said and so if [25:00] you want, you know, to pick up on that thread if anything comes to mind there.
SC: So, I’m not quite sure if I’m understanding the reference to joy that you pointed to earlier. I’m not I’m not quite sure if I understand that the… Maybe you can, I think, draw that line a little bit more clearly between?
JP: Sure. I think it’s the idea that in a lot of this work and maybe this is another way to get at it is in this work when we focus on figures like Thomas Jefferson or we focus on the structures of white supremacy and readings that try to deconstruct or critique white supremacy, sometimes I think we get kind of buried in the focus of sort of the power of white supremacy to say that this is an all-encompassing structure and that can be, sort o,f it can reinforce its fixity in a certain way and to kind of come at it from another angle to say well [26:00], where are there moments where this is in fact not fixed or where there we can see moments of this being a bit more tenuous or a bit more fragile that through those moments, that through those spaces, one can find moments of resistance and alternatives and I think the conversation was around spaces of, you know, of mutual support and joy and community. That these spaces show the power and the limitations… The power of joy in an African-American cultural setting but then also the limitations of white supremacy that it’s not just this thing that is all-encompassing and sort of a permanent fixture or permanent edifice of our of our nation.
SC: Well, I’m not, well, I hope it’s not permanent, but it has been long lived. White supremacy [27:00], I’m talking about. Now, the power of joy can always undo hatred. I do think that that’s true. And since I don’t know the scholars work that you’re referring to, I am having a little bit of a hard time jumping onto that but I certainly do know that one of the things that is so incredible about people in this nation who have experienced great injustice, so not just African Americans or Native Americans or any people of color or people in the LGBTQ community. I just… Anybody who has experienced the kind of hatred that does exist palpably in this nation and they counteracted with their joy, their voice. And a kind of magnitude around those things. That I understand. [28:00] So, if that’s what someone was talking about, what the scholars dimension was talking about, then I certainly understand that. But I have to say, that white supremacy has been a thing that has been in this nation for a long time and it is in fact the underpinning structure of this nation. So, again with this paradox of liberty and slavery. So, what we’re still working on is to hold on to the liberty. And if that liberty means that there’s an investment in the joy for everyone, then we can undo eventually the legacy of slavery. So, you know, simple questions like when we think about… When we think about black men and women or people of color and the way they are treated, we are treated by, well, just [29:00] a police brutality against groups of people who are people of color. That you still leave your house. You still laugh with your family. You still continue on. It’s not only an example of joy, it’s an example of fortitude. It’s an example of a kind of resistance, to not being hemmed in, and I… One of the things that I love about African-American people is our resilience, but we’re also fragile and we get… we should be allowed to be fragile too because we’ve been through a lot in this nation. The legacy. And yet, when people point to American culture so much of… so much of what people point to when I travel far and wide is the music, [30:00] is our food, is, you know, things that I associate with African-American culture that is really, you know, it’s like hmm this nation couldn’t be what it is without this kind of without our legacy and yet, it’s such a problematic paradox again is paradox of liberty and enslavement. This paradox of how to celebrate with equality, how to be equal in this nation. Simply how to be equal in this nation every day, all day. Just how to be equal in this nation. The strength it takes to do that is a kind of strength and a [31:00] kind of beauty that is… I think Cornell West said this, “That African-American people are perhaps the most loving people on the planet because how else could we survive without a kind of love and fortitude.” I mean, you know, I may be joy fits in there too as well.
DMcD: Yes. I think that the discussion attempted to focus on, yes, the spectrum of black emotion including joy and joy as a resistant response to oppression. There have been scholars of slavery, for example, whose recent work has turned to spaces, fugitive spaces, alternative geographies, outside the explicit boundaries of the plantation [32:00]. Those spaces where black people worshipped, made music, made love, etc. So, I think it’s joy, as one of spectrum of emotions available to Black Americans even in the face of centuries-long oppression in this nation. But I want to ask you as we… We don’t want to take up the rest of your afternoon, but we’ve been talking about this peculiar American story. In what ways does your Caribbean heritage inform your work or perhaps you’re… not just this work but your work more broadly?
Creating art in the global context
SC: Well, before there was a United States of America, there was a transatlantic slave trade and that’s what bought and brought my Caribbean, my Afro-Caribbean [33:00] relatives here and my Scottish Caribbean relatives to this side of the planet. And all of that was British Empire. So, the story is very connected, Of course, that I happened to be born… I’m first generation American. My parents both immigrated to the United States and became American citizens, but they’re both now ancestors and… But the so many… So many parts of that story are similar stories, you know. Jamaicans and the sugar trade, Jamaicans and the indigo trade. Not so much the cotton trade. And if you look at my family, my family lives in the United States of America, Jamaica, Trinidad, Scotland, England, and I used to have some family members that lived in Ghana. You know, now there is quite [34:00] a diaspora of us, but those were the main footholds. For the Clark side of my family in the McCarty side of my family, too. So, this looking at identity within the context of a global context is something that I think is very much part of my work and early on, I looked a lot at the connections through my father’s lineage to Nigeria and specifically through the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and Benin in earlier works and I have to admit that living in Richmond Virginia for twelve years made me really think about about the Civil War, about chattel slavery and around those histories because I was seeing Confederate flags daily. And that changed the work in one way. But I do think that, you [35:00] know, I have I have a lot of hope for America otherwise I would have moved somewhere else. And now I do think we’re in a dark place. But in one sense that the dark place that we’re in is also a place where there’s cracks of light and what I mean by that is where people were once sort of passionless about politics, they are suddenly impassioned because they understand what is at stake, you know? Sort of the negative side of American exceptionalism. Everything is not perfect here. This is how imperfect it is. There’s work to be done. How do we do it? And so, that Caribbean heritage is very much about what it means to be an American and being a first-generation American. I always think about what my parents gave up to come to this nation and it wasn’t easy for my father. He… I [36:00] grew up in Washington, D.C. because he went to Howard to get his medical degree and my mother followed him. After they courted for ten years across an ocean, it was not easy for them to get here and to make do and get an education. My father paid for his way through school, took him a long time. The sacrifices that they made for my generation and for my relatives that then came up and followed them were not small sacrifices and so that legacy of the Caribbean is very much deeply rooted in me. Through my parents first and foremost but also to that broader legacy of thinking about it was all the British empire at some point.
DMcD: Exactly. It was all the British empire at some point. Is there anything else you’d like to say to us about your work, about Thomas Jefferson, about the issue of Declaration [37:00], more broadly? Anything that may come to mind as a kind of parting part of our conversation.
SC: You know, I was thinking about the… One of the things that, I mentioned this earlier, that one of the things I had hoped but it was not possible to do was to have people help me make the bricks so that the piece… So that people would say, “That’s the brick I made.” “I made the “we.”” “I made the “whole.”” Like that sort of thing, but it couldn’t happen and yet there’s so many people that are there either because the mirror that is part of the piece captured their faces in a fleeting moment so they became part of the piece. I like to think that artwork has the power to absorb all of its viewers and to absorb all of its stories that get attached to it, all the readings that get attached to it. But then physically [38:00] in the piece are all of those ancestors, all of that genetic material, all of those people who came before us, as they are captured in each strand of the hairs of the people that were gathered up from Richmond salons and barbershops. So, there’s a presence of people in the work. That are holding that work together, that are challenging those words and upholding those words, simultaneously. And so, that paradox is something that’s really important to me and I just liked it make sure that that’s shared with your audience.
DMcD: How eloquently put. Really eloquently put. Quite beautiful.
SC: I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you.
DMcD: Thank you so much.
SC: Well, thank you. Thank you both for your time. Now, I get to go back to cleaning my mother’s house. [39:00] Sending a thank you page.
JP: Really appreciate you making the time, especially during this difficult time of yours and I hope it helped to discuss art and to talk about big Ideas like this and we really… We’ll keep you in the loop about how we use the materials and we’ll definitely keep you up to date as the series progresses, but this is just such a wonderful conversation and we really appreciate you for making the time to speak with us today.
SC: You’re welcome, and I appreciate you all too for the work that you’re doing. And thank you for including me in it. So, have a good day. Okay. All right until our paths cross in person. Take care now. All right, bye-bye.